Nor less new schools of poetry arise,
Where dull pretenders grapple for the prize:
O'er Taste awhile these Pseudo-bards prevail;
Each country Book-club bows the knee to Baal,
And, hurling lawful Genius from the throne,
Erects a shrine and idol of its own;
Some leaden calf--but whom it matters not,
From soaring SOUTHEY, down to groveling STOTT.
--Lord Byron, "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" 75-82
Opposition is True Friendship.
--William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
For their new volume of critical essays, editors Tim Fulford and Michael Sinatra proposed that contributors reexamine the Romantic period from the perspective of the "culture wars" that emerged during the early Regency: wars between accommodationists and critics of the new government. Epitomized by the personal and public antagonism between Robert Southey and Leigh Hunt, this warfare pitted the older Bards based in the Lake District against the younger, Cockney-based Reviewers. Recalling this conflict in a truly new narrative of the Romantic period, this book charts the rise of "new schools of poetry, / Where dull pretenders grapple for the prize," specifically the rise of the second generation Romantics from the cultural Agon of the early Regency.
In the words of one contributor, Jonathan Sachs, this book bets that "trading...the comprehension afforded by the longer perspective of higher-order dates, like the century, for the information and detail afforded by lower-order dates, like the annual, [...] provides us with a fixed point from which to think about how those living through a historical moment imagine what I am calling the 'glimmer of futurity'" (20-21). Adopting Levi-Strauss's theory of "hot" chronology, the contributors treat us to minute particulars and the synchronicity of events lived forward. This effectively reverses expectations and levels hierarchies of value that develop through retrospective canon-formation.
Perhaps most striking in this regard is the way Tilar Mazzeo links Jane Austen and William Blake by means of a miniature portrait that she saw and he engraved, or the fact that Blake's face appeared as one of thirteen famous Britons on a set of buttons commemorating King George's Jubilee in 1809. In Mazzeo's rigorous presentness, miniatures and buttons are as important in the signifying economy (and market economy) of 1809-1813 as is Pride and Prejudice or Jerusalem. Likewise, Sachs begins his essay by considering what Thomas Moore, Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and John Keats were doing on January 1, 1811 and January 1, 1815; like his fellow contributors, Sachs thus illustrates the synchronicity of life lived within the flowing quotidian, before it has been differentiated into important and unimportant, foreground and background. In other words, this approach reconstructs the perspective of Regency denizens as they stared into an uncertain future from within the confines of a confusing, fluid present.
Even if the specific vision of the Laker-Cockney culture wars as the defining feature of the Regency milieu must remain speculative and incomplete, historical understanding and methodology are this collection's greatest gifts. Fulford, Sinatra and their contributors have dared to reimagine the Romantic period from within the long forgotten events that once animated daily life. They remind us that the "contexts" we so often employ to foreground what has become canonical literature were not distinguished as such when they were first created. As Mazzeo argues, "in the Regency, the difference between a Hermes boutique selling artisanal goods and a Walmart hawking mass-produced items does not functionally exist" (76). Thus Blake, who "did not necessarily divide his illuminated art from his commercial or decorative work" (75) may well have intended "Jerusalem ... as a work of decorative art" (77, italics original), like a coffee-table book from a vanity press--or a miniature portrait on a button.
Similarly daring reversals abound in this collection, and I was enthralled by the painstaking case that each author makes for pulling the rug out from under received wisdom. This is scholarly detective work at its best. The volume is utterly convincing and extremely useful in seeking "to show that examining Romanticism in relation to the culture, politics, and history of the Regency reveals significant contours that are not evident as a result of conventional periodization" (2). It is the authors' daring, but also their research, rigor, erudition, and eloquence that produce such an exciting, valuable challenge to customary ways of thinking. Their leveling historicism, dedicated to "thinking with" the subjects of history, will be immediately engaging and of essential importance for years to come.
If Jerusalem was meant to rank with Blake's commercial, decorative arts, if the Countess of Berkeley's sensational affair replays the same story as Mansfield Park, if "the interconnected regimes of domestic and state violence that Shelley would explore in The Cenci...were on display...every week in Hunt's [Examiner]" (82), then we must question the values that dominate current narratives about the Romantic period. In these narratives, some texts are canonized while others (presumably lesser) are hustled into the background as context, a referential base for the literary superstructure. By contrast, this book does its utmost to treat all texts as they would have appeared to their first readers. The many shifting and unexpected genealogies described in this volume show the fluidity of texts at their points of creation and early circulation, their meaning co-created in relation to other texts that are linked in dynamic networks. Thus the song lyric that Andrew Stauffer ascribes to Byron, "When I left thy shores O Naxos," becomes the apex expression of many texts and events that Byron draws together: song-filled dinners with Kinnard, Kean, and Moore (author of the popular Irish Melodies); Byron's other lyrics of the period; Hebrew Melodies; memories of sexual and social freedom during his "lost months" in Athens, 1810-11; and second thoughts about his impending marriage to Annabella Milbanke. "[A]nd so a poem like this," writes Stauffer, "would emerge out of one of those bittersweet bachelor evenings of 1814 as he prepared himself to confront what lay ahead" (155). The song originates from the confluence of multiple thoughts, experiences, memories, and texts, gaining other meaning only as later readers pull it out of its original mesh and attach it to "Byronism."
Besides arresting our aesthetic prejudices, the historicism exemplified by Stauffer's reading of Byron's lyric reopens some wonderful intellectual questions: what if Mansfield Park is simply the most successful allegory of capitalism's highly disruptive recalibration of "Price" and value, part of the same intertextual network as Edmund Burke's political philosophy, William Cobbitt's gonzo journalism, and paparazzi gossip columns--all of which challenged the new distinctions between price and value? Maybe Ezra Pound was right: literature is just "news that stays news."
To demonstrate that Mansfield Park initially ranked no higher than "news," contributors emphasize the pervasive experience of uncertainty, fluidity, and openness created by the Regent's ascension in 1811. As Sachs notes, 1811-1813 "were the years within the Regency prior to Waterloo when the ongoing Napoleonic Wars made that future most uncertain" (19). This period's "amorphous, transitional nature," in Joel Faflak's analysis, "required a rather more urgent domestic reorganization of pleasure's otherwise excessive desires" (32-33). Hitherto stuck in the rigid order of George III's reign, all old alliances, expectations, and values came unglued when the prince took up his temporary, contingent authority. Should one accommodate the Regent's shift to a realpolitik of exercising state power, or should one critique his betrayal of promises to Whig confederates and Reform? So important is this question for all public discourse that, in the contributors' new narrative, "accommodation and critique would be the twin poles of Romanticism in the Regency period" (3). Its primal scene is the Regent's appointment of Robert Southey as Poet Laureate while Leigh Hunt is being held in jail for libel. Though the volume aims to show how "the Regency itself shaped the literature, and all the contradictions of the period" (2), the editors and several contributors use the conflict between Southey and Hunt to epitomize the Regency's shaping force. "[T]his intense conflict, particularly in its wider role within the sustained culture wars between so-called Lake and Cockney Schools," writes Greg Kucich, "...determined much of the poetical and political character of Romanticism during the Regency era" (119).
It was Leigh Hunt's will to power, his opportunistic reaction to the unbraiding of relational networks in the newly fluid socio-cultural landscape of the early Regency, that reorganized clear, dialogical alignments for the emergent social field. As he used the Examiner to critique the new regime, Hunt established his judgment as a public touchstone of integrity. He picked sides in such a way as to define the moral difference between them. As such, Hunt is responsible, far more than Romanticists have recognized, for designing the Regency's socio-cultural map. By the time Southey was offered the Laureateship, the meaning of his acceptance had been fixed, and the destinies of Lakers and Cockneys were coming into view. Thus Southey's good faith attempt to square personal integrity with the Laureateship, as explained by Michael Gamer, became coded as accommodation (107-110).
Mobility, then, is a key term in this volume's account of the early Regency as well as in its definition of creativity. Kucich notes Southey's "sustained capacity to electrify Hunt's imagination and inspire so many bursts of creative genius" and "Hunt's fertile anti-Southeyan imagination" (122). In Kucich's reading, Southey and Hunt become "contraries" stimulating each other to greater creative productivity, and in Hunt's case to "formulate one of the elemental, self-fashioning ingredients of Cockney aesthetics and politics" (122). Other examples of creative mobility include Pierce Egan's wildly popular Life in London, Regency museum culture, and Humphrey Davy's career, all of which depend on an inspiring, dialogic "contrary" (123). If the years between 1811 and1815 witness the development of a culture war that defines the entire Regency, that war is facilitated by increased mobility across diverse, newly porous boundaries, in turn mobilizing new, conflictual encounters that inspire creative response. The Hunt-Southey agon might not have exemplified the kind of opposition that Blake identified with "true friendship," but, as the contributors to this volume prove, oppositional friction sparked a sustained burst of creative energy.
A book that takes mobility as a key theme, however, should reckon with the two titanic embodiments of Romantic mobility, Byron and Napoleon. Although written in 1823, Byron's English Cantos from Don Juan define 1811-1815 through characters whose mobility was equaled only by that of Byron himself, awaking to find himself famous in March of 1812. As for Napoleon, his mercurial character fascinated British writers for over a decade, Hunt and Southey foremost among them. Examination of both would have further developed the theme of the volume. While I respect the editors' specific decision to highlight some neglected texts and figures (1-2), they might have acknowledged the necessary incompleteness of their survey.
Nonetheless, this steady redefinition of creativity as a mobile, agonistic, dialogic process helpfully corrects the more mystified theories of rhapsodic inspiration and solitary genius that once dominated Romantic studies. Contest, clash, gathering, and polarization--all species of agon--characterize intensely creative moments at all levels of culture and biology, in the Regency and our own politically polarized age. People of conscience may not want to equate Steve Bannon with Leigh Hunt, but Kucich's descriptions of Hunt's "fertile anti-Southeyan imagination," quoted above, could be easily applied to Bannon's fertile anti-Hillaryan imagination." To repurpose the terms I have quoted from Kucich's essay, Hillary Clinton's sustained capacity to electrify Bannon's imagination and inspire so many bursts of creative venom has led the Alt-Right to formulate one of the elemental, self-fashioning ingredients of the aesthetic politics, or political aesthetic, of Trumpism. If exceptional creativity emerges from the dialogic agon that characterizes particularly "hot" chronologies, it suggests that society is a constantly shifting set of networked communities that conflict, clash, and collaborate to co-create new, hybrid social identities. As in an ecotone--the porous boundary between stable ecosystems--such tension is a sign of strong polarities and boundaries, but also a source of new creative energy. The years from 1811 to 1813 were not just a "flashpoint" within "Romanticism's creative, often apocalyptic, temperament," as Faflak argues (32), but also--as Lance Gunderson and C.S. Hollings have shown in Panarchy (2002)--a moment of significant release and reorganization in response to multi-scale change typical of complex, adaptive socio-natural ecosystems.
The scholars involved in this volume are some of the best respected Romanticists of their generation and most have been developing their theories of periodization for the last several decades through conferences and in print. Additionally, the volume seems to have greatly benefited from its gestation: an initial workshop followed by two years of discussion, honing, and exchange. The result is one of the most coherent, tightly cross-referenced and allusive works of its kind that I have read. Its chief flaw is also its chief strength: the establishment of boundaries to mark a neglected phase of Romanticism. Like the divisions used to define all hot moments in cultural history, these boundaries are heuristically necessary, but they leave out many writers who might logically find a place within them: chiefly Scott, Gifford, and Jeffrey.
More problematic than merely omitting a few writers, however, is tracing the origin of these creatively productive culture wars to the conflict between Hunt and Southey. This move ignores the prescience of Byron's "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," which not only discerns the poles of an identical culture war between Bards and Reviewers in 1807, three years before the Regency, but also evokes a tradition of cultural warfare stretching back generations. The most productive work to be found in this volume explores the same trope of a culture war and its role in fashioning "new schools of poetry"; in overlooking Byron, then, the volume obscures the long history of that trope, even within the Romantic period, and the mobility of its chronological boundaries. Yet rather than being dismissive, this objection shows that the powerful readings offered by this volume can and should inspire Romanticists to revisit the Regency, to test and contest, develop and help remake the narrative of Romanticism. As such, this volume is a welcome and valuable gift to future scholarship on the period.
J. Andrew Hubbell is Associate Professor of English at Susquehanna University. and Adjunct Professor in English and Cultural Studies at University of Western Australia.